Hindu vs Sikh, outsider vs local: Congress slugs it out before bypoll

Asha Kumari calls up MLAs, local leaders, workers for feedback; final call by CM, Jakhar

punjab Updated: Sep 15, 2017 18:52 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Congress,Bajwa,Partap Bajwa
Partap Singh Bajwa and Sunil Jakhar(HT Photo)

It appears the Congress loves to warm up for a poll battle in Punjab with an internal war over tickets first. The Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll — set for October 11 — is no different. Though the seat was held by the BJP’s Vinod Khanna, who passed away in April, the Congress is hopeful of clinching it, being the party in power in the state.

For now, its leaders in Majha region — where the party factions are most volatile — have drawn the battlelines over local versus outsider candidate, and Hindu versus Sikh. Both rural development minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa and Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa, who earlier represented Gurdaspur in the Lok Sabha, want the ticket for their kin. Both are Jat Sikhs. To rule out the possibility of Partap’s wife Charanjit Kaur bagging it, MLAs from Gurdaspur opposed to him have propped up the name of state Congress president Sunil Jakhar, a Hindu leader who belongs to Abohar in southern Malwa region’s Fazilka district.

But Partap’s brother, Qadian MLA Fateh Jang Bajwa, has stirred a debate by seeking a local candidate. And it continues to rage on. “I will welcome Jakhar’s candidature as he is our state chief. But the message to the people should not go that the party does not have a local candidate. I will abide by whoever the party leadership decides to field,” Fateh told HT.

Some of those whom Partap got tickets during the state polls are also backing the argument. “I have asked my party workers, and they feel there should be no parachute candidate. I have given the feedback to AICC (All India Congress Committee) general secretary in-charge of Punjab, Asha Kumari. Charanjit Kaur Bajwa enjoys a connect with women voters too,” said Amit Singh Manta, the Congress’ assembly nominee who lost from Sujanpur this year. Though Pathankot MLA Amit Vij and Bhoa MLA Joginder Singh, too, are seen as Partap’s proteges, they have chosen to stay mum. Even some known Bajwa-baiters, who want to be rehabilitated, are endorsing his stand. Former minister Raman Bhalla, who failed to get the ticket for Pathankot assembly seat, says fielding an outsider will dent the party’s chances, and puts his own hand up too. “It is not about whether a Sikh is chosen or a Hindu. But the candidate should have his or her roots in Gurdaspur. I too am willing to contest,” he said.

Asha Kumari, when contacted, said she has taken feedback from not just MPs, MLAs, local leaders and office-bearers, but also from workers. “At times, leaders can have their own interests in supporting a candidate. But the workers know the people’s pulse. I will give my feedback to chief minister Captain Amartinder Singh, who is expected to be back from the UK on Saturday, and to Sunil Jakhar, when I meet them both tomorrow. The final call will be taken by them and I will convey that to party president Sonia Gandhi,” she said.

Jakhar, who lost the assembly contest this time after three consecutive wins, apparently does not want to take the plunge when his own house looks divided. But he insisted, “It’s not like one camp in the party is challenging the other. Everyone has a right to give their opinion and it would be considered before we decide on the candidate.” Finally though, it may depend on whether or not Jakhar bites the bullet.

Gurdaspur a Hindu seat?

Opinion in the Congress is also divided over whether the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat fits the description of a ‘Hindu seat’. For the party, Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, a Sikh, was a five-time MP from Gurdaspur, and Partap Singh Bajwa too won the seat once. Vinod Khanna, a Hindu, won it four times for the BJP. But MLAs backing state unit chief Sunil Jakhar’s candidature claim it to be a Hindu seat. Interestingly, his most vocal supporters are MLAs from Sikh-dominated seats — Fatehgarh Churian, which minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa represents, has more Jat Sikhs, and so does Dera Baba Nanak segment of MLA Sukhjinder Randhawa.

Though Qadian too is Sikh-dominated, it has a sizeable population of Christians and Muslims. The demographic profile of Batala has also changed, and it now has an almost equal number of Sikhs and Hindus. SAD candidate Lakhbir Singh Lodhinanagal, a Sikh, emerged as the winner this time here. Pathankot and Sujanpur are dominated by Hindus, mainly Rajputs and Arora-Khatris, while Dinanagar and Bhoa are reserved seats with high percentage of Dalits or Scheduled Castes (SCs). But voters do defy the communal divide. Gurdaspur assembly seat, considered Sikh-dominated, chose a Hindu, Raman Bahl of the Congress, and later went to Gurbachan Singh Babbehali, a Jat Sikh leader of the SAD. This time, the Congress fielded a Sikh candidate, Barinderjit Singh Pahara, who won. “Some assembly segments of Gurdaspur parliamentary seat have more Sikhs and some have more Hindus. But its people do not vote on communal lines. They vote according to whether it is the SAD-BJP or Congress wave,” insists Qadian MLA Fateh Bajwa.

First Published: Sep 15, 2017 18:50 IST